Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

The collection of Flannery O’Connor’s complete stories begins with six written between January 1946 and September 1947, which formed O’Connor’s MFA thesis at the University of Iowa. While these stories aren’t exactly juvenilia, they’re something like it. The themes of O’Connor’s later work are here, as well as the biting humor and sudden, painful unveiling of truth. But it’s obvious that she’d yet to find her voice and her stunning spiritual vision. They read like a gifted writer’s imitation of Flannery O’Connor.

In Iowa, she kept a prayer journal in a marbled composition book. When she began the journal, she was twenty years old and away from home for the first time. Recently discovered and edited by William A. Sessions, A Prayer Journal paints an honest and vivid inner portrait of a pious and outlandishly talented young person learning how to be Flannery O’Connor.

The dominant key is not spiritual fervor, but a desire for it: for a fervor that would animate her hopes and bring focus to her life and work. This passage from her first prayer is representative of the tone of the whole: 

Oh God please make my mind clear.
Please make it clean.
I ask you for a greater love for my holy Mother and I ask her for a greater love for You.
Please let me get down under things and find where You are.
By journal’s end, O’Connor’s longing has intensified, finding expression in the fierce and violent imagery we expect in her fiction:
Dear Lord, please make me want You. It would be the greatest bliss. Not just to want You when I think about You but to want You all the time, to think about You all the time to have the want driving in me, to have it like a cancer in me. It would kill me like a cancer and that would be the Fulfillment.

In these pages, O’Connor prays through her literary dreams. The only earthly thing she asks for is literary success: “I want very much to succeed in the world in what I do.” But even as she expresses such straightforward ambition, she also submits to the will of God:

I have prayed to You with my mind and nerves on it and strung my nerves into a tension over it and said, “oh, God, please,” and “I must,” and “please, please.” I have not asked You, I feel, in the right way. Let me henceforth ask You with resignation – that not being or meant to be a slackening up in prayer but a less frenzied kind – realizing that the frenzy is caused by an eagerness for what I want and not a spiritual trust. 
Authors in Iowa (1947): Arthur Koestler, Robie Macauley, and Flannery O’Connor 

Even before she had published anything, O’Connor had the sense that writing was a calling from God; her mission in life to tell the truth through fiction. But she also understood that her motives were less than pure:

Oh dear God I want to write a novel, a good novel. I want to do this for a good feeling & for a bad one. The bad one is uppermost. . . . Help me to get what is more than natural into my work – help me to love & bear with my work on that account. If I have to sweat for it, dear God, let it be as in Your service. I would like to be intelligently holy. I am a presumptuous fool, but maybe the vague thing in me that keeps me in is hope.
O’Connor wrote this prayer, by the way, around the time  she began writing Wise Blood, though she wouldn’t finish it for another five or six years. Her prayer for a good novel was answered, answered abundantly, but she did have to sweat for it.

In these prayers are habits of mind in the young O’Connor that persist through the rest of her short life. She was always suspicious of her own motives, suspicious even of her own eloquence. She feared writer’s block even as she tried to trust God to equip her for her calling. To the end, she sought to “see the bareness and the misery of the places where [God is] not adored but desecrated,” knowing that those places are where God’s mercy thunders down, welcome or unwelcome.

But even more interesting are those prayers that show a Flannery O’Connor different from the one we know. The O’Connor of the prayer journal is terrified that she might turn out to be mediocre.  The question comes up several times throughout the journal: “Mediocrity is a hard word to apply to oneself, yet I see myself so equal with it that it is impossible not to throw it at myself.” She soon outgrew the fear.

Or consider the following prayer, which shows the difference between twenty-one-year-old O’Connor and the mature O’Connor:

Please let the story, dear God, in its revisions, be made too clear for any false & low interpretation because in it, I am not trying to disparage anybody’s religion although when it was coming out, I didn’t know exactly what I was trying to do or what it was going to mean.
Hard to imagine the mature O’Connor praying that her work would not be misinterpreted, since she would not only be misunderstood, but misunderstood in a dozen different and contradictory ways, which she learned to live with. But those Iowa stories lack the willingness to be misunderstood.

The O’Connor of A Prayer Journal was an unpublished writer. She hadn’t been diagnosed with lupus. She had yet to move to Andalusia, the dairy farm outside Milledgeville, Georgia that we most often associate with her life and work. She wasn’t yet Flannery O’Connor. But, as the journal shows, she was getting there.  And it makes fascinating reading as the story of a singular soul.



Jonathan Rogers, is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O'Connor, as well as Saint Patrick, a biography. He teaches literature and writing at New College Franklin in Franklin, Tennessee, and is a regular contributor to the Rabbit Room (www.rabbitroom.com).